Labour conference: Move to abolish deputy post ditched

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Deputy labour leader, Tom Watson

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has quashed a motion at his party conference to oust his deputy, Tom Watson, by abolishing the position.

Mr Corbyn suggested the role should be reviewed instead, and was backed by the ruling National Executive Committee, a Labour source said.

A group of Labour MPs had urged the NEC to avoid an “internal civil war” when it should be preparing for an election.

Mr Watson called the move to oust him a “sectarian attack” on a “broad church”.

Speaking ahead of the party conference in Brighton, he told the BBC he found out late on Friday in a text message that a motion had been tabled by Jon Lansman, founder of Labour grassroots group Momentum.

He said he felt Mr Lansman “and his faction” were so angry with him over his calls for Labour to “unequivocally back remain” and have another public vote on Brexit, that they would “rather abolish me than have a debate about it”.

After his intervention, Mr Corbyn told reporters outside the conference centre that he “enjoyed” working with Mr Watson.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn

He later said: “The NEC agreed this [Saturday] morning that we are going to consult on the future of diversifying the deputy leadership position to reflect the diversity of our society.

“And the conference will move on to defeating austerity, to the green industrial revolution, green new deal that we are putting forward and giving the people a final say on Brexit.”

Mr Lansman said he fully supported Mr Corbyn’s proposal to review the deputy leader post.

“We need to make sure the role is properly accountable to the membership while also unifying the party at conference. In my view, this review is absolutely the best way of doing that,” he said.

Outcome of the row

The row over Mr Watson’s position threatened to overshadow Labour’s party conference.

On Saturday morning, in an interview on BBC’s Today programme, Mr Watson said the move by Momentum was “moving us into a different kind of institution where pluralism isn’t tolerated”.

He went on to appeal to Momentum activists to focus on showing people they were serious about changing the political economy of Britain rather than having “a sort of sleight-of-hand constitutional change to do a drive-by shooting of someone you disagree with”.

Shortly after, the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), which represents Labour backbenchers, wrote a letter to members of the National Executive Committee – including Mr Corbyn – saying the move was counterproductive and sent the country a message “we are more interested in internal battles” than constituents’ lives.

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair, who led Labour from 1994 to 2007, said abolishing the deputy leader post would be “undemocratic and politically dangerous”.

Dawn Butler, shadow women and equalities secretary, said Momentum’s move had “come out of the blue” but she could understand the frustration with the deputy leader who had not been seen at shadow cabinet meetings “for a while”.

 

Emmanuel Ukoh